Vanishing point

Posted on April 26, 2008

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Darran Anderson interviews Nicholas Hogg

Darran Anderson: Show Me The Sky can be read as a crime novel, a mystery tale, a travelogue and an existential treatise, what it also seems to be is a story of one man’s obsession, with James Dent as a kind of Captain Ahab character, forsaking his home comforts and family for the sake of uncovering the truth. Would that be a fair assessment?

Nicholas Hogg: I hadn’t thought of Detective Dent as an Ahab truth finder, but certainly enjoy the comparison as Moby Dick, whilst not active in my thoughts writing Show Me the Sky, was certainly a book that inspired. And yes, Dent does lose his own life to try and find out what happened to someone else’s. Though his escaping, as we find out in the novel, is as much a way to uncover his own ‘truth,’ his own past, as it is to unravel the mystery of a vanished singer.

DA: The lost rock star of the novel Billy K is an iconic figure with many echoes in real-life musical and literary figures, who or what were your inspirations when creating him?

NH: All generations of rock stars, singers and performers have their casualties. But growing up in the grunge scene of the early 90s, a fan of Nirvana, the Manic Street Preachers, Jeff Buckley and Blind Melon, I watched a lot of singers I admired fall by the wayside. And not even including the doomed icons I became aware of in a 60s/70s resurgence – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Nick Drake – arguably helped by Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Like many teens of my time I became fascinated with Jim Morrison and even admit some kind of adolescent hero worship. But this came before the death of Kurt Cobain, and the disappearance of Richey James – two artists I was blown away by at the vaunted 1992 Reading Festival. I suppose constructing the character of singer, Billy K, and his subsequent vanishing, was an attempt to discover something of why an artist with the world at their feet would be prone to self destruct, or disappear entirely.

DA: At the heart of Show Me The Sky is the fascinating idea that in an increasingly globalised information-obsessed age, someone would decide to resist, to go against modernity itself by rejecting it all and vanishing. Do you see this as a form of rebellion or as some last ditch survival mechanism?

NH: Rebellion and survival may often be the same act. Particularly when attempting to maintain your identity. And in a time where intrusion into who you are is the norm, whether this is CCTV, Facebook profiles, a mobile phone and its twenty four hour connection, a rejection of modernity is one way of defining the line of self more clearly. And as ‘self’ is not only you, but the people around you, your environment, vanishing can be refuge from the bombardment of living – especially for a globally famous rock star scrutinised by press and fans.

DA: There’s a remarkable passage in the book (in the ‘Terra Incognita’ section) where a character is struggling to survive in the wilderness and recounts all the useless knowledge he’s been saddled with, all the pointless deadweight of civilisation that can’t help him in any practical way. There’s the suggestion that society is this thing superimposed on the wildness of (human) nature and it’s also much more brittle than we realise, is that an outlook you share?

NH: The motorcyclist stranded in the outback is an intelligent young man, but this knowledge is superfluous in what is alien terrain, the terra incognita. He is angry that he has ‘saddled’ himself with trivia when he needs to know how to get water from a desert plant. What he knows about Elton John will not help him. Society, celebrity obsession, may have imposed this on him, but we have ‘superimposed’ society upon ourselves. And it certainly is brittle. Look at how war breaks us down to base instinct, our conduct powered by the will to survive, rather than the morals and values constructed by society. This idea is no better communicated than in McCarthy‘s The Road. While this view of human nature is pessimistic, it should alarm us enough to renovate society, construct it in such a way that it does not come tumbling so easily.

DA: You’ve lived in places as diverse as Japan, Fiji and US, what have these ventures brought to your writing?

NH: Last count I’d travelled to over sixty different countries, some for no more than a day, and some in my memory as just a trip to a museum or being drunk in a bar. For a year I lived on board a ship and sailed around the globe three times. Apart from being able to write about the cyclone and mountainous waves in Show Me the Sky from experience – one of the most frightening moments was seeing fear on the Ukrainian Captain’s face when caught in a tropical storm in the South China Sea – and describing exotic locales and customs from Fiji, travel shoots the novel with a panoramic lens. Even close focus on a place or character can be enhanced by the wider knowledge of what is ‘out there.’ Other cultures help you see your own, what is the same, what is different.

DA: And have you ever been tempted to follow Billy K, “turn to smoke on a Quantas plane” and disappear?

NH: Less dramatically, I would say I have done. I was kicked out of home when I was seventeen, and never returned. So the very fact I’ve not lived in one place for more than a year since then, and travelled to so many different countries, must be/have been some kind of disappearing act. And I use two tenses there because I hope that at some point I might find a settled place ‘to be.’ Not so different from characters in a certain book.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

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